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School & District Management Opinion

The State of K-12 Educational Entrepreneurship

By Rick Hess — June 25, 2015 3 min read
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Yesterday at AEI, Mike McShane and I hosted a research conference on the state of educational entrepreneurship in K-12. It was a remarkably provocative discussion about how educational entrepreneurship works (or doesn’t), what it takes for it to succeed, how we know if it’s doing any good, and how it’s shaped by policy and the larger realities of education. If you’re interested in the particulars, you can watch it here and find the papers here. The authors are a raft of sharp thinkers, including John Katzman of Noodle, Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools, Stacey Childress of NewSchools Venture Fund, Elizabeth City and Jon Fullerton of Harvard, Dmitri Mehlhorn of Vidinovo, John Bailey of Digital Learning Now!, Ashley Jochim of the Center on Reinventing Public Ed, and Ross Baird of Village Capital.

We’ll be revising all of this into a book that’ll be out with Harvard Ed Press early next year. It will seek to build on my earlier explorations Educational Entrepreneurship and The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship. The former is now nearly a decade old, so it seemed well worth considering how things have changed. Yesterday, it struck me that educational entrepreneurship today is marked by at least three major tensions that deserve a lot more careful attention.

System Solutions v. the Entrepreneurial Impulse: American education is huge, with tens of millions of children and millions of teachers. Most school reformers are in a hurry to improve things and thus have an affinity for big statewide (or even national) approaches that will “fix” teacher evaluation, low-performing schools, or what-have-you. The entrepreneurial impulse is distrustful of these big solutions, doubts that they will work as projected, and worries that they’ll stymie smart alternatives. We usually try to wish this tension away by saying we’re for “experimentation” and “innovation,” and then for using that stuff to inform system solutions. But that’s more a rhetorical dodge than a way to reconcile two competing ways of thinking about school improvement.

Punctuated Equilibrium v. Entrepreneurial Dynamism: A nasty truth is that every big, inert corporate bureaucracy was once an entrepreneurial venture. But, once organizations get big and successful, entrepreneurial challenges can start to feel messy and distracting. The result is that yesterday’s entrepreneurs tend to pull up the drawbridge behind themselves. We see this in the charter school sector today, big time. Established charter schools and foundations see lots of aspiring charters as a nuisance and would prefer to focus on growing the established, successful charters. They’re not wrong to think this. It’s normal enough and fairly healthy. There is, however, a studied inattention as to how this mindset reflects the way school districts tried to close the door on KIPP and its ilk 10 or 20 years ago—and how it may stifle the emergence of promising new solutions.

Leaving No Child Behind v. Embracing Educational Diversity: The mantra of test-based accountability is that the tests are “a floor, not a ceiling.” Nobody thinks reading and math are all that schools should focus on; accountability hawks merely think that all schools need to ensure that all students are mastering these basic skills. After that, they say, schools are free to customize and rethink every which way. However, this tends to work much better in theory than in practice. For one thing, those simple “floor” metrics become how schools are judged and compared. They do offer a way to challenge new providers (like “no excuses” schools) to demonstrate their merits on reading and math, but the story is rather different for others. Indeed, when policy and philanthropy treat reading and math tests as the coin of the realm, the entrepreneurs who succeed will disproportionately be those who are successful on those measures. It becomes a problem for those who aren’t doing “whole school” models, who aren’t focusing on tested grades or subjects, or who may tackle ELA and math in ways that don’t map onto the tests. And there’s less appetite or room for entrepreneurs who aren’t focused on closing reading and math “gaps” for low-income, African-American, or Latino youth.

There’s not an obvious resolution to any of these tensions. And that’s okay. The problem is that there’s a tendency to decide that one view or the other is the morally defensible route—which tends to squash our ability to thoughtfully view the trade-offs and devise more sensible compromises.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.